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Pointers for next election start now

Ryan Alessi
Ryan Alessi

FRANKFORT — After each election, it's usually helpful and healthy for both political parties and the observers who follow them to assess the lessons learned from the just-concluded campaigns.

The 2008 set produced a seemingly endless presidential race and about a dozen hot contests in Kentucky brimming with such lessons.

Here are some of the morals to the stories that the candidates, party officials and public at large came away with — or should have.

Quality candidates matter

It might not be true in Alaska — where recently-convicted Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens could still win re-election, depending on final count of absentee ballots — but in Kentucky, voters just won't elect a felon.

Carroll Hubbard, the former Democratic congressman who spent time in federal prison for campaign finance violations in the 1990s, lost his second straight bid for the state Senate last week. He was easily defeated by Republican Sen. Ken Winters of Murray in Western Kentucky's 1st Senate District.

On the flip, both parties pulled off solid victories with smart, aggressive and personable candidates in races that easily could have tipped the other way.

Soon-to-be senator David Givens of Greensburg has been widely praised by Republicans throughout his race for the open 9th state Senate District, where Democrats poured in money and picked their own top-shelf candidate, Steve Newberry.

"You can instantly tell there was something about his integrity and intellect that set him apart," said state Senate Republican floor leader Dan Kelly. "He's the real deal."

And the Democrats captured two GOP state House seats because of well-run campaigns by Martha Jane King of Lewisburg in Western Kentucky's 16th District and Kevin Sinnette of Ashland in Eastern Kentucky's 100th District.

Make politics local

One of the main things those legislative candidates did to lay their groundwork was aggressively court voters in person.

And U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell used the hyper-local approach in two ways to help him fend off Democrat Bruce Lunsford.

First, he and the Repub lican Party of Kentucky oversaw a massive get-out-the-vote operation with 2,000 volunteers over the last 72 hours. It accurately targeted key swing voters and likely GOP voters, to make sure they went to the polls Tuesday.

Second, McConnell directed his messages in his campaign commercials to local communities as much as possible. He talked about his clout as Republican Senate leader, and he ran different ads in each media market highlighting money and resources he secured for each region. One of his final ads showed a host of local officials — most of whom were Democrats — praising McConnell.

All that helped insulate McConnell from a strong anti-incumbent, and specifically anti-Republican, sentiment that swept the country and was reinforced after the tanking of the economy accelerated this fall.

When hit, hit back

Although Lunsford couldn't overcome that in the end, he did do one of the best jobs in responding to McConnell's notoriously pointed attack ads — it just wasn't enough.

Other candidates in Kentucky were reluctant to respond with tough talk after their opponent or their supporters made harsh accusations.

The Republican Party, for instance, ran a negative ad in the 9th Senate District against Newberry that attempted to paint him as a backer of liquor and casino interests. And Democrats lost a state House seat in Paducah after the Republicans branded the Democratic candidate, a 15-year county commissioner, as a career politician, even though her primary profession had been with non-profit charities.

"I think that for as much as people said they dislike and hate negative campaigns, they still work," said Kim Geveden, a Democratic campaign consultant. "Democrats in Western Kentucky, I think especially, still play too nice."

Moving forward

Overall, in Kentucky's election and political systems, two major changes that could affect campaign seasons and governing are gaining some steam.

Attorney General Jack Conway said one of the reasons Democrats might not have been able to recruit as many candidates is that the party's leader — Gov. Steve Beshear — wasn't able to focus much on the politics because he was hit with such overwhelming demands after being elected last November.

Within the first 60 days of a governor's election, he or she must hire high-ranking officials, assess the current state of government, put together a two-year $18 billion budget plan to suggest to the legislature, assemble a legislative agenda and begin courting lawmakers to back those proposals.

"Kentucky's system is set up to where it's incredibly difficult to get all of that accomplished in such a short period of time," Conway said. "Then you add in the political demands on top of that."

Changing that time line or moving the election of a governor would require amending the state constitution, which might be a discussion state leaders need to have, Conway said.

The other suggestion for broad changes is reforming campaign finance rules.

Secretary of State Trey Grayson and Republican state Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, have pushed for increased reporting deadlines. Currently, candidates don't have to release their fund-raising numbers and donors from June until less than a month before the November election. The political parties and caucus funds don't have to show their numbers until after the November election.

And Grayson and Thayer have advocated for candidates who raise a lot of money to file their reports electronically so they can immediately go up online for the public.

My last political column

After more than four years of writing the weekly political notebook column, this is my final one.

Later this month, I will begin covering Kentucky's colleges and universities, as well as higher education policies and trends, for the Herald-Leader.

It's a new challenge that I'm eager to tackle. But it doesn't signal a cutback in the Herald-Leader's commit ment to covering state government and politics. Eventually, a new political writer will be named.

For the nearly six years I served in that capacity, I had the tremendous fortune of learning from some of the most knowledgeable and insightful sources and analysts, who patiently taught me the history and nuances of Kentucky's unique and colorful brand of politics.

And although the ranks of the Frankfort press corps have shrunk in recent years, a host of talented reporters remain. Many of those journalists — starting with the dean of the Capitol press corps, the Herald-Leader's Jack Brammer, and including some of this newspaper's chief competitors — unknowingly served as role models for me.

To all of them and to those dedicated readers of the Herald-Leader's political coverage, I will be forever grateful.

Ryan Alessi has covered Kentucky politics for the last six years. He is moving to the higher education beat. This will be his last political column.